Saturday, November 27, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Zardoz (1974)

My  friend, Johnny Byrne (27 November 1935 – 3 April 2008) -- an Irish poet, philosopher and writer on science fiction TV series such as Space: 1999 and Doctor Who -- often termed the decade of the 1970s  the "wake-up from the hippie dream" of the 1960s.

In other words, the counter-culture revolution which was formed in large part due to opposition over the Vietnam War,  failed to re-shape the world and the direction of the human species. The dreams of the post-Camelot world gave way to the hard realities of the disco decade.

Instead of a new social order, the world seemed on the verge of social breakdown instead.  Words like "malaise," and terms like "crisis of confidence" seemed to dominate the debate.  Gasoline shortages slowed down America, and garbage collection strikes left trash piled high in the streets of London. 

The dreams of finding a better way of living seemed to give way to excessive consumption, personal decadence, hard drug use and even cult insanity, much like that exemplified by Charles Manson and his "family."

Space:1999 (1975-1977) very much concerned the concept of the "wake-up from the hippie dream," at least in metaphorical terms.  The series was often about humanity broaching new and radical forms of life -- and ways of living -- in episodes such as "Guardian of Piri," "The Last Enemy," "Missing Link," "Mission of the Darians" and so on. 

In the end, the human Alphans always clung tightly to what one might term established "human" values.  They were not co-opted by the Utopian but often coldly cerebral dreams and thinking of the Zennites, the Bethans, the Pirians, the Darians or other races which had "perfected" themselves.  

Moonbase Alpha was itself an experimental commune of sorts, but one that cast off both the failures of "20th century technological man" and the alien thinking of various, highly-advanced intergalactic cultures.

In this way, Space:1999 was a remarkably balanced presentation; noting both the perils of blindly accepting tradition/convention and the dangers of shifting the established social order to something untested and seemingly "alien" (as many in the Silent Majority viewed the tenets of Eastern Philosophy, which gained a new foothold in American intellectual thinking during this epoch.)

All of this description is but contextual prologue to my analysis of director John Boorman's challenging Zardoz (1974), a brilliant and highly idiosyncratic science fiction production which, like its contemporary, Space:1999 arrived smack-dab during the "wake-up from the Hippie dream."

Specifically, the 1974 film concerns the serious problems of a post-apocalyptic counter-culture order of "Eternals" -- essentially an egalitarian commune -- and the eventual, violent re-assertion of the conventional nuclear family unit through the presence and actions of a revolutionary in the commune, a macho outsider and "Brutal" named Zed (Sean Connery).

Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert termed Zardoz "an exercise in self-indulgence (if often an interesting one) by Boorman, who more or less had carte blanche to do a personal project after his immensely successful Deliverance. Boorman seems fascinated by stories which are disconnected from the ordinary realist assumptions of most movies."

Film scholar Jay Cocks of Time Magazine appreciated the cinematic wizardry of the film, if not necessarily, the details of the world Boorman created.  He wrote: "The startling beauty and tension he can work into a single shot --say, of Connery rising out of a pile of dark grain holding a revolver --  are the work of a film maker who is rather a wizard himself."

These critical snippets get at some of the trademark if extremely controversial brilliance of Zardoz; both its unconventional manner of presentation in terms of traditional cinema narratives, and its unique ability to foster suspense through individual moments of resonant, extremely powerful imagery. 

Today, the film succeeds mainly as a critique of the counter-culture, of the commune experiment of the 1960s-1970s and, simultaneously an all-guns blazing defense of the traditional family structure, or what some left-leaning scholars might not-so-happily call "the Patriarchy."

The narrator of the film, the puppet-master behind the god Zardoz (the wizard of oz so-to-speak) introduces the film as "rich in irony and deeply satirical," and what he seems to suggest, simply, is that mankind's long search for a better way of living -- for immortality itself -- is a fruitless search. 

Man has already discovered the way of life that works best for him, and it is the conventional family structure.  Everything else is a dead end; a blind alley. By film's end, the unsuccessful "new" order has been invalidated and overturned, and tradition re-established.

There's also an argument here against the evils of Communism.  Zed and his macho, cowboy-styled Executioners (all men, by the way...) ultimately rebel against their false God, Zardoz and the hidden puppet masters, the Elders, when the advanced society turns the Brutals from hunters to workers: slaves cultivating crops and delivering them to the God Head. 

This is an unacceptable way of living to the formerly "free," savage, Brutals and so rebellion results.The Eternals interfered with their destiny to be killers...turning them into farmers serving a higher class, and populist revolt is the solution.

"Who conjured you out of the clay?"

The false god, Zardoz calls to the Brutals in the futuristic landscape of Zardoz.
Zardoz involves a futuristic society of the year 2293.  A small egalitarian commune of "Eternals" has established a new order of life amidst the breakdown of civilization.  After a new Dark Ages occurs, a group of scientists wall themselves off from the rest of barbaric humanity with a force field called "The Vortex," and then establish the control of an artificial intelligence called "The Tabernacle."  

Each Eternal is surgically-implanted with a crystal in his or her forehead, and it can link to the Tabernacle and its vast repository of knowledge at the speed-of-thought.  Each Eternal also carries a communication ring, for issuing orders and transmitting holograms about scientific and mercantile matters.

Disease and death have been banished from everyday life in this futuristic commune, and the Eternals are truly immortal.  They have lived hundreds of years.  One cost of this immortality: Eternal males can no longer achieve erection, and therefore there is no possibility of children; of offspring. 

This is the last generation; but it shall last forever.

Another dark sign: the Eternals mercilessly punish those who assert individuality amidst their democratic (Marxist?) community. They banish these "Renegades" to an old-folks home after rapid-aging them years, sometimes decades.  The Renegades live in this home -- senile and lost -- forever banished.

Eve worse, the community of the Eternals has come to prize its own eternal continuance over the well-being of other communities, over other human beings.   The rest of humanity dwells outside the force field "Vortex" in poverty and primitivism. The Eternals keep the "Brutals" in line by providing them a false god named Zardoz.  Zardoz -- a giant, floating stone head -- orders these Brutals not to breed, telling them that "the penis is evil," lest the environment become unbalanced, with too many Brutal mouths-to-feed. 

Similarly, Zardoz informs the Brutals that "the gun is good," because it can be utilized to reduce the Brutals' numbers. 

Both the evil of the penis and the good of the gun are methods of population control; so that the Eternals may retain their grip on power, and a life of ease and luxury.

In Zardoz, one curious Brutal, an executioner named "Zed" (Connery) sneaks into the floating Zardoz monument and thereby penetrates the Vortex.  After Zardoz lands in a rural landscape, in the Eternal commune, he finds himself an object of both curiosity and hatred by the Eternals. 

One woman named May (Sara Kestelman) wants to study Zed, especially after learning that he is a genetic mutant with the potential of great intelligence (greater even than that of the Eternals).  Another Eternal, Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) sees Zed as a primitive virus or disease who could pollute the commune and even destroy the Eternal way of life.  A third, apparently disinterested party, Friend (John Alderton) sees Zed simply as a means of passing the time. 

"Let's keep it," he suggests, "Anything to relieve the boredom..."

Zed undergoes a kind of evolution or period of enlightenment in the Eternals' commune.  Friend shows him the Renegades in the old folks home, as well as a breed of "Apathetics," Eternals who have slipped into virtual catatonia for lack of physical stimulation and any change in the same routine. 

Then, Zed learns that he was actually bred and selected by the puppet master behind Zardoz, Frayne, to destroy the Eternal way of life; to defeat the Tabernacle and bring the gift of death back to a civilization that serves no purpose but its own, endless continuation.  He is "The Chosen One."

At film's end, Zed breaches the Vortex and his fellow Brutals swarm into the commune on horseback, with guns blazing.  In a scene that plays more like an orgy than a massacre, the Exterminators destroy the Eternals, who are grateful to see their endless, pointless lives finally come to end. 

Meanwhile, May escapes to the outside world, carrying "knowledge" back to the ignorant Brutals. 

As for Zed, he and Consuella reconcile...and become lovers. 

Finally in Zardoz's final time-lapse montage, we see this duo -- this man and woman (Adam and Eve?) - form the crux of a new family that will produce offspring, and ultimately a new, better chapter in human history.

"A better breed could prosper here. Given time..."
Zed (Connery; center) sees his savage past replayed for Eternal consumption, by Consuella (left) and May (right).

It is not difficult to interpret Zardoz as director John Boorman’s carefully and occasionally humorous critique of the unconventional, untested "hippie" life-styles developing in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In particular, the film seems to take dead aim at the Zeitgeist of that period by presenting the Eternal Community as, essentially a 1960s-style commune run amok.

Let’s pause for a definition and history lesson there. Communes are small groups of people living together for a common purpose, but not in a traditional family unit. Nearly a million people lived in communes in the early 1970s, and the goal, largely was to keep the outside world at bay.

In Zardoz, of course, the Eternals (a tribe of perhaps fifty) actually maintain a force field separator – the Vortex – between their commune and the outside world, a literalization of that goal of keeping the world at bay.

Timothy Miller, writer of The 60s Communes, Hippies and Beyond, wrote an illuminating definition of a commune in his 1999 book from Syracuse Press. In the introduction (pages xxii-xxiii,) he noted that communes feature a sense of common purpose and separation from the dominant society, some form or level of self denial and suppression of individual choice in favor of the group, a geographic proximity, and notions of economic sharing and critical mass. In this case, critical mass means simply that communes are relatively small in size, fifty or so individuals, as I already labeled the Eternals above..

The Eternals of Zardoz fit this definition perfectly, not just in terms of their separation from the Brutals, but in other important fashion. Like many communes, the Eternal society is egalitarian in nature, meaning that decision is made by a group, and all members of the commune have equal access to resources and decision-making.

Throughout the film, for instance, we see the Eternals “voting” on the final disposition of the intruder in their midst, Zed. Should he be put down, outright, as Consuella desires? Or held for further study, as May wishes? Everyone in the commune votes on it, and Zed is given a new lease on life, seven more days.

In terms of geographic proximity, the commune in Zardoz consists largely of a single mansion and its out-buildings, though there is also an old folks’ home for “Renegades” and a stable for the “Apathetics” within walking distance

In addition, the Eternal mansion and grounds fit very much the pop culture stereotype of  1960s-1970s communes. They are a place ofstrange music, weirdly dressed people, and psychedelically-fueled behavior.”

In this case, however, the behavior is not psychedelic so much as psychic. Each Eternal is joined to an artificial intelligence (a super computer?) called the “Tabernacle” which sees to their needs and desires. It’s like having the Internet and a web search inside your own head, ready to be activated by vocal command. 

But more importantly, when Friend is labeled a "renegade," he is psychically assaulted -- with exaggerated hand gestures -- by his former comrades.  This is weird and trippy; and not entirely unlike some drug-fueled, hippie-styled dance.

Zardoz sees the unconventional structure of a commune as being counter-productive to a healthy human existence. The Eternals are immortal, but they have lost -- in their all-consuming quest for permanence -- any sense of the spontaneous, any sense of the moment. They are bored, and some of them, like Friend, actually long to die. For them, that is the only possible release from a life of eternal, emotionless intellect.  The new form of the democratic commune has, in fact, made life stagnant and empty.

The joys of sex and procreation have also been forsaken in this futuristic commune. Without children, there is no real sense of the future. Only the continuance of the present, the status quo. Without children, a culture cannot be healthy, because it can not look past its own selfish needs at the needs of the race; at the needs of a future generation.  This is another example of the Eternal's stagnation.

Even sleep itself has been vanquished in the Eternal commune, replaced by active, second-level meditation. Interestingly, Zardoz positions sleep – and dreaming – as an essential quality of healthy humanity. Consuella observes Zed sleeping and then awaking from a dream, and it is clear that he finds dreaming restorative.  It is a "changed" mind-state, a release from the drudgery of the Eternal existence, and without it, the Eternals are empty.  They have no change; so they cannot brace transformation; transcendence.

The Tabernacle informs Consuella that "Sleep was necessary for Man when his waking and unconscious lives were separated. As Eternals achieved total consciousness, sleep became obsolete, and Second-Level meditation took its place. Sleep was closely connected with death."

Sleep was closely connected with death; perhaps that is what makes life meaningful; the omnipresent threat and presence of mortality in our daily cycle.  With this "state" of consciousness gone, the Eternals have forsaken some essential quality of humanity.  Death has been banished not just from their physicality, but from their very psyche. 

"Every society had an elaborate subculture devoted to erotic stimulation." Or "The Penis is (not ) Evil."

Consuella (right) sizes up Zed's manhood; while a screen behind her charts the trajectory of his erection.

Zardoz is not likely to win any accolades from feminists.  In the film's most daring, even brazen sequence, Consuella studies Zed's penis, and looks for the connection between mental stimulation and physical erection.  In fact, a large viewscreen behind her actually plays arousing, pornographic imagery for Zed to respond to.  But instead, he grows erect at her presence...a fact which greatly disturbs the Eternal. 

And no, I'm not kidding about any of this.  You'd never see a scene like this in a movie today.

And that's kind of a shame.

As I've written above, Zardoz creates a comparison between the unchanging, stagnant Eternals (a largely feminized culture, dominated  by May and Consuella, I mean...) and Zed, the Brutal....the male ideal.  The Eternals don't shift from consciousness to sleep.  They don't dream.  Zed does both.  Zed is proud of his physicality, he doesn't discount it, and indeed, Sean Connery spends the bulk of the movie wearing nothing but a red jockstrap.  Hie is a walking, talking phallic symbol.

But importantly, Zed is able to change his body; as the movie explicitly points out inthis sequence.  Unlike the other Eternal men, his penis goes from flaccid to erect (and Zardoz accommodatingly -- and amusingly --shows us a view-screen diagram of this transition).  

Consuella reports clinically about the penis, and its role in human culture: "There seems to be a correlation with violence, with fear," she notes of male sexual arousal.  "Many hanged men died with an erection. You are all more or less aware of our intensive researches into this subject. Sexuality declined probably because we no longer needed to procreate. Eternals soon discovered that erection was impossible to achieve. And we are no longer victims of this violent, convulsive act which so debased women and betrayed men."

Again, Consuella sees sex as a "violent, convulsive act" which "debased women and betrayed men," yet the sex act is undeniably part of who we are as a species.  It is the process through which life continues and evolves; the act of procreation.

Zardoz suggests in some ways that like sleeping/waking, flaccid/erect is a kind of miracle of the human imagination and ingenuity -- even if it can be linked to male violence -- and that, well, it is the key to our future.  The male mystique?  Perhaps, perhaps not. 

The film makes no bones (*ahem*) about the fact that Zed is an unrepentant rapist of women during his life as a Brutal.  But the film also seems to state that changeability (from flaccid to erect) is part of the human process of transformation that is essential to a healthy human race.  And indeed, it precedes the most miraculous transformation of all: from an empty womb to the creation of a new human life.  That's the (traditional) role of females.

In Zardoz, even the destruction of the Tabernacle is put in decisively masculine, sexual terms.  "You have penetrated me. There is no escape. You are within me," says the defeated machine. "Come into my center. Come into the center of the crystal!" 

That's not the end of it, either.  May desires Zed.  She sees salvation through intercourse with this "superior" genetic specimen.  "Inseminate us all, and we'll teach you all we know, give you all we have. Perhaps you can break the Tabernacle."

Again, I remember many reviewers being really, really offended by this idea, noting that the female Eternals longed for the potent "magic" underneath Zed's "loin cloth."  That's a simple way of putting it, when the film is really about the process of change, and how we can change even our physicality (in terms of attaining an erection).   It's a metaphor.  The idea of human evolution and change is ultimately what allows Zed to  grow beyond being a simple savage, to defeating the Tabernacle and ending the Eternal culture.  The dichotomy between sleeping/waking is just as important, but not as dramatic, I suppose.

So, Zardoz, in simple terms, is a clash of cultures.  In one, the penis is "evil" for what it brings (more babies!). In another, it is "good" because it represents the way man can change himself, and even continue himself. 

I should further add, I am not subscribing or advocating any particular point of view here; only reading the text of the "film" and attempting to interpret the meaning of the visuals and themes.  I encourage you to screen the film and come to your own conclusion about what Zardoz means.

Zardoz and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

The feminine gaze?
  Zardoz ends with the traditional family structure visually re-affirmed. Zed and Consuella move into the stone God head, Zardoz, mate with one another, and have a baby, a son.

The film then cuts to a time-lapse family portrait featuring the couple and their boy over the years as they age, the son goes off to find his own family and destiny, and the long-lived parents finally die.  Zed and Consuella -- in the natural order of life -- become bones, then dust.  The implicit message: this is how it is supposed to be, for human beings.

This climactic time-lapse family portrait is scored to Beethoven’s  impressive Symphony Number Seven, written in 1802.  The master work is widely held out as a “perfect” symphony by critics, and is also known for reflecting a sense of energetic spontaneity.

Consider then, the conjunction of image and song in this finale. With the traditional family re-affirmed visually in the blocking: the perfect triumvirate of father, mother and child, the music serves the same purpose. The perfect symphony is heard, reinforcing the notion that this is how things should be. This is the family structure that will save mankind, going forward.

And in terms of spontaneity, this is how we must face life, isn’t it?

Not with all the knowledge in the universe in our possession; not as some kind of boring, stagnant egalitarian democracy…but as thinking, feeling changeable (transforming...) humans who live in the moment. This dazzling final sequence gets at that notion with the spontaneous-sounding symphony, and the idea of each moment lived most fully…and then gone.

It’s a perfect, rousing note to go out on, and it reflects entirely Boorman’s critique of unconventional living arrangements (like communes) and idolizes the traditional nuclear family as the vehicle for a productive future. 

Again, I don't have to tell you that this idea is very unpopular with some.  Stephanie Goldberg of Jump Cut, for instance, wrote: "ZARDOZ can be read as a wistful if handsome attempt to build a labyrinth around a crumbling male supremacist ideology."

She has a point.  The film undeniably forwards a conservative argument, a return to traditional values as the key to continuing mankind in a healthy fashion.  As The New York Times observed: "Zed...arrives to overthrow the élitists and bring mankind back some 300 years."  Yep, it's a return to traditional values all right.

The test of a great film (and a great science fiction film) is not so much whether we individually agree with every argument therein; but whether the film successfully makes its case.  I would argue that Zardoz succeeds on this basis.  It gorgeously, humorously, brazenly, erotically, skillfully presents its arguments about human nature.

And Boorman directs the picture with his usual, incomparable sense of finesse. A director is "a fake god by occupation - and a magician, by inclination," the film suggests, and in Zardoz Boorman masterfully presents this imaginative dystopic universe, proving, perhaps -- at least to conservative critics (who hated the movie when it was released...) -- that "God" [the natural order of man?] has a place "in show business too."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving 2010!

Dear readers,

I hope you all enjoy a healthy and happy holiday with your loved ones this Thanksgiving Day. 

Eat some turkey.  Drink some wine.  Hug someone you love.  Watch a good movie, or watch a bad movie that you enjoy.

This year -- as is the case every year -- I am profoundly thankful for all of you, the readership of this blog. 

I appreciate you stopping by, and look forward to continuing the conversation on film and TV after Thanksgiving.

Warmest wishes,
John K. Muir

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #123: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Pangs" (1999)

Many horror and sci-fi TV programs boast a Halloween-themed episode -- like Star Trek’s “Catspaw” -- or even a Christmas episode, such as Millennium’s heartfelt “Midnight of the Century.”

But in broad terms, relatively few cult TV programs boast Turkey Day editions in their episode rosters.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) remains a notable exception to that rule. During its generally-underrated fourth season, this WB series from  creator Joss Whedon presented a funny and involving Thanksgiving installment titled “Pangs.”

The episode -- penned by Whedon and Jane Espenson, and directed by Michael Lange -- first aired on November 23, 1999.

Hard to believe that's already eleven years ago...

 In this particular installment Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the Scooby Gang investigate a murderous demon after the buried Sunnydale Mission -- believed destroyed in the earthquake of 1812 -- is accidentally unearthed.

Or rather, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) discovers the mission by falling into a hole during the dedication and ground-breaking ceremony of U.C. Sunnydale’s new and expensive “cultural center.”

Unfortunately, by breaking into the sealed subterranean chamber, Xander accidentally releases the vengeful spirit of a Chumash warrior named Hus (Tod Thawley). 

Hus's Native American people suffered imprisonment, forced labor and terrible disease when the white man arrived from Europe and quickly populated the American continent. Now, the demon’s first order of business is “re-creating the wrongs” done to his native people all those years and centuries ago.

Translated, this means that the demon gives Xander malaria, smallpox and syphilis. “I am vengeance,” declares Hus. “I am my people’s cry.” 
As Buffy tracks down the vengeful and murderous Hus, she also broaches another challenging undertaking.

She prepares a traditional, home-cooked Thanksgiving meal at Giles’ apartment.

In particular, Buffy recalls the happy holidays from her youth and -- during her first year away at college -- desires to recreate that experience.

Buffy talks meaningfully and wistfully in the narrative about the “sense-memory” of Thanksgiving that occurs every time she smells a roasted turkey.

The socially-minded Willow (Alyson Hannigan) is upset, however, because she believes Thanksgiving is really just a celebration of “one culture wiping out another.” It’s a “sham,” Willow complains, upset.

Buffy’s response? Perhaps it is a sham…but it’s a sham “...with yams.”

Giles (Anthony Head) and the recently neutered Spike (with a behavior-modification chip in his noggin) are bothered by Willow’s unflattering description of the autumnal holiday. They both see the situation more plainly. “You had better weapons…and you massacred them,” Spike (James Marsters) tells Willow of the Native-American population.

Simple as that. Or is it?

The debate raises an important question. Is it right for Buffy to “slay” Hus when he has a legitimate grievance against our ancestors?

What’s worse, isn’t he right to be upset that -- on his people’s former land – the conquering people are now building a “cultural center,” in effect a celebration of the genocide of the indigenous folks?

What remains so terrific and funny about “Pangs” a full decade later is that Buffy’s attempt to host a happy holiday dinner is undercut at every turn by these grave philosophical disagreements in her family, a unit which certainly does include the demonic Spike at this point.

The topic turns overtly political after a fashion, and everyone who has ever returned home for a family holiday knows that politics is the source of much indigestion at real-life gatherings, at real-life holiday feasts.

In-laws who hold different viewpoints are suddenly thrust together for a meal at the same table -- and there’s usually alcohol involved too -- and boy, the sparks can really fly.

The philosophical discussion underlining “Pangs” concerns a question not unfamiliar to most of us in modern American culture. Can a wrong in the past be repaired by a wrong in the present?

This idea has been discussed much, especially near the end of Clinton’s second term, specifically in relation to America’s ignoble history of slavery. Are modern Americans -- folks living right now -- to blame for  their ancestors' misdeeds several generation ago? In terms of the Native American genocide, the same question is raised. 

And if reparations forced upon a blameless current generation aren’t particular just either, does a simple apology to the families of the wronged feel like enough?  Is that the best we can muster?

Obviously, there are no simple answers to such deep questions of American history, but I love how Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes the context of Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings and then makes the dramatis personae debate the conflicted nature of the holiday, each according to his or her own personal beliefs.

Nobody is bad. Nobody is evil (well, nobody besides Spike…).  Everyone just boasts a different perspective on what remains a controversial subject.

Here -- treading deeper into the quagmire -- some hurtful comments are even made about a “minority” living in Buffy’s modern, diverse Sunnydale: demons. Xander lays down the law, and it sounds perilously like bigotry. “You don’t talk to vengeance demons, you kill them!” he stresses, angry and sick.

Well, of course, this remarks hurts Anya’s (Emma Caulfield's) feelings. She’s a demon after all. they? Not all of them are evil, are they?  What about Oz?  What about Angel?  And on and on.  Is killing them on sight the answer?

Finally, Hus and a “raiding party” of demons arrive at Buffy’s Thanksgiving meal, and there’s a colossal battle between the Slayer and a demon she has zero interest in killing. Buffy would prefer to offer an apology, rather than fisticuffs. To the direct-minded Spike, however, this approach is folly. “You exterminated his people,” he reminds Buffy of Hus.  An apology ain't gonna cut it.

Finally, Buffy does fight with lethal force, and the implication seems to be that some hurts, some breaches, just can’t be resolved peaceably.

Ultimately, even the politically-correct Willow feels like something of a hypocrite. When the Native-American demon spirits attack, she’s among those who pick up shovel and fight for their lives. As we all would under the same circumstances.

But the coda in "Pangs" involves a hope for the future instead of a conflict over the past.  In the episode's last scene, the threat of Hus is nullified and Buffy and her friends (including Spike) sit down together -- demon and human -- for an enjoyable "family" feast.

In some way, this final image of an ad-hoc, modern American family consisting of a demon, two vampires, two Brits, a Valley girl, a witch (and lesbian) and a construction worker seems to get at the point of the narrative's debate.  Just the fact that these diverse folk break bread at the same table may provide the key to healing old, historical wounds. 

Perhaps enemies old and new must share a Thanksgiving table, a special meal together, and start fresh. Build new, better memories. Let go of the angers of the past, even if they are justified. Otherwise, as Hus learns, the only possible future is death.  At least breaking bread, and passing the cranberry sauce, is a start.

As Xander happily notes at the conclusion of "Pangs," it’s the perfect Thanksgiving in Sunnydale after all: “a bunch of anticipation, a big fight, and now we’re all sleepy…”

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends!  Be safe and enjoy your holiday with your loved ones...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Death Race 2000 (1975)

Thirty-five years after it was produced, Paul Bartel and Roger Corman's Death Race 2000 (1975) remains an example of exhilarating, go-for-broke, low-budget science fiction film making.

Of course, the "futuristic" film is undeniably brutal and bloody too, so much so that Roger Ebert awarded the film "zero stars" and contemplated leaving a screening early upon the film's initial release.

Yet the decades have been kind to Death Race 2000

What seemed viscerally excessive in the Gerald Ford Era now seems merely par-for-the-course in the post-War-on-Terror and Torture Porn Age. 

And with the on-screen violence neutered to some degree by contemporary expectations and standards, something truly wondrous and unexpected has occurred in this case: the film's satirical angle has more fully-flowered than ever before.

Like the best examples of the genre, this is a sci-fi movie that comments on the "American way of life" --" no holds barred," to quote the film -- in an intelligent manner. 

But it's not some heavy-handed political diatribe either. 

On the contrary, Death Race 2000 is veritably fuel-injected with laughs.  The film boasts an unmatched sense of wicked black humor.  Today, you're far more likely to laugh than turn away in disgust from the film's action. In particular, Sylvester Stallone is a hoot as the movie's touchy villain, a guy who answers every perceived slight with a volley of machine gun fire or a good impaling.

Perhaps the great fun of returning to 1970s productions like Logan's Run (1976) and Death Race 2000 today is sizing up their predictions about the unknown, unwritten future.  Logan's Run predicted a dominant youth culture obsessed with beauty and fitness, for example. 

Anyone who watches the CW on a regular basis realizes that this prophecy has come to pass.

Likewise, Death Race 2000 imagines a dystopic future, one where a parochial American electorate is mesmerized and distracted by violent bread-and-circuses entertainment while a rich political class rules the land and pulls the strings. 

When this Orwellian Order is being overturned in the 1975 Bartel film, one of the rebels meaningfully shouts "The Age of Obedience is over!"   

That exclamation may not seem entirely appropriate to the year 2000; but it sure as hell seems appropriate in the year 2010, the Year of the Tea Party, no? 

And did I mention that the lead rebel in the film is actually a woman named Thomasina Paine (after revolutionary and journalist Thomas Paine) who wants to take back her country, and specifically refers to such American founding fathers as "George Washington," "Abraham Lincoln," and..."Harry Truman?" 

Again, this sounds a little too familiar today.

It's a bit unsettling, actually, how accurately (and viciously...)  Death Race 2000 predicts many of the defining trends of the first decade of the 21st century. 

All while depicting a violent, action-packed narrative, the film comments on a multitude of important things.  For instance,  Death Race 2000 looks meaningfully at the ways that crafty politicians encourage xenophobia and jingoism to distract from important domestic matters.  

Simultaneously, the movie also shows the ascent of reality television in the American pop-culture firmament and imagines what impact the equivalent of modern "gladiatorial" games could have in a technological age 

On that front, just consider this fact: both Survivor and Big Brother first aired in the U.S. in the year 2000, the very year of this film's action.  

On a whole, would you judge that a full decade of reality TV has made us a more attentive, literate people? Or is the opposite true?  Has this kind of entertainment coarsened the culture?

Most trenchantly, however, Death Race 2000 seems to fully understand how dangerous it can be when the walls between politics, religion,  journalism, and pop entertainment crumble and these formerly-trusted pillars combine to form a giant multi-headed "media" Hydra. 

"Is winning all you care about?"

Death Race 2000 commences as the "20th annual trans-continental road race" is about to begin in New York.  In this government-promoted race, a "new American champion will be crowned," and there are several contestants in competition.

They are: Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Machine Gun Joe Veturbo (Sylvester Stallone), Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins) and "Mr. President's" favored contestant: the U.S.-govt sponsored hero and two-time winner named "Frankenstein" (David Carradine).  He wears an all-black leather body suit, and a mask that ostensibly hides his racing "scars."

The racers' destination is New Los Angeles and on the way to the finish line, each driver is expected to rack up points by striking and killing innocent pedestrians.  In fact, their fearsome cars have been fiendishly designed for just such a purpose; decorated with blades and other impaling tools such as knives, horns and dragon's teeth. These are mean, lean, killing machines.

In the race's violent rules, women pedestrians are worth ten points and teenagers are worth forty points.  Hit a child under twelve and seventy points are earned 

The greatest reward? One hundred points per each senior citizen struck and murdered. 

As the race starts, Frankenstein is joined by a new navigator, beautiful Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), secretly a rebel plotting with Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin) to kill the racers, abduct Frankenstein and force Mr. President -- who has been ensconced in high office since "The World Crash of 1979" -- to abolish the bloody race once and for all.  This mission is called Operation "Anti-Race."

But on the open road, Frankenstein and Annie grow close, even as the rebellion and Frankenstein's fellow drivers attempt to kill them ...

"[Winning] in the name of hate"

Death Race 2000 announces its intention to satirize almost every important aspect of American culture in its opening frames.

As the movie begins and the trans-continental race commences, we hear the familiar notes of the National Anthem as played by a high-school marching band.  So the Star-Spangled Banner is still the official theme song of the United Provinces in America in the year 2000, but there has been an important upgrade to Old Glory herself. 

In short order, we see that the blue background and white stars of our beautiful flag have been replaced by a gloved fist pointing heavenwards.  So now its fists and stripes, not stars and stripes. 

Maybe it's supposed to represent a terrorist fist bump?

Arriving in theaters as it did in the last year of the Vietnam War, during an ongoing Energy Crisis, with inflation on the rise, and a President having resigned in disgrace, Death Race 2000 also suggests a future America in which the old, dependable, and traditional pillars of the country have failed utterly.  They have abdicated their obligations and are running on empty, on fumes.

If anything, we are simply much further down this road in 2010 then we were in the disco decade, and the speculations today thus seem more accurate.

To start with, the journalists featured in the film are not independent arbiters of fact, rather they are access-hungry promoters towing the official party line. 

One shallow journalist, the wonderfully-named "Grace Pander," lives up to her moniker.   To pander means "to cater to the lower tastes and desires of others or exploit their weaknesses," and that's exactly what she does.  She symbolizes the total, seamless blending of news and entertainment -- which some  observers call "info-tainment" -- and again, the trend has gotten a lot worse since 1975.  She caters to the blood lust of an angry, resentful populace.

Pander treats the film's racers as celebrities and speaks in worshipful tones of "Mr. President," the national leader.  For her own personal fame, Pander has forsaken her responsibility as a journalist to ferret out facts and truth.  Instead, she merely encourages the populace to adore the racers, and support the race.    She also plugs and parrots the the anti-elitist, anti-intellectual line of the government officials. 

When Frankenstein goes after physicians and nurses with his dragon car, for example, Pander reports it as a populist victory and writes off the murder as being, well...deserved.

"Well, those doctors - dear friends of mine - have been pretty smug all these years setting up the old folks. Frankenstein must have decided it was their turn."

Yep, those darn elitist, college-educated physicians!  Who the hell do they think they are?  They got what was coming to them...the bastards. I'll show em' a death panel!

Politicians don't get off any easier than journalists in Death Race 2000.  "Mr. President" governs the nation from his "summer palace" in Peking, China (another particularly timely joke about the United States become more and more owned by Chinese interests), and our Great Leader beats a familiar jingoistic drum in order explain to the people why the economy is so bad. 

In particular, he uses a long-lived and cherished American scape goat: the French.   Specifically, Mr. President claims that France and her "stinking European allies" collapsed America's economy on purpose.

This is funny for a couple of reasons. 

First, some Americans always want to blame the French for our woes...conveniently forgetting that the French were our most dedicated and steadfast ally at the time of the Revolutionary War.   

But, again, look to the events of the last few years.   Remember when France wouldn't support the Iraq War in 2003-2004 and the mainstream media and the administration in power joined forces to trash everything French? 

French fries became freedom fries.  Bill O'Reilly actually launched a boycott of French wine on his Fox show, if I remember correctly.

Death Race 2000 hints at this simmering American animosity or resentment for Europeans, particularly the French, and even ends with the President launching a war against that country after falsely claiming the French air force (humorously just one, measly plane...) ambushed Frankenstein. 

"Well America, there you have it," announces a reporter, "Frankenstein has just been attacked by the French Air Force and he's whipped their derrieres!

Secondly, in terms of 2010, consider the global economy and how interconnected it has become.  Think about the Greek economic melt-down, and the ripple effect that it has had on the world already.  The idea of another country subverting America's prosperity, on second blush doesn't seem as ridiculous today. An economic disaster in another country can damage us.  So Death Race 2000 gets that contemporary idea right too.

There's also no separation of Church and State in this America of the Year 2000.  The Bi-Partisan Ruling Party of America boasts an official Deacon to bestow the blessing of the Lord (and the President) upon the racers, though he comes to a bad end. 

Again, this is an abdication of moral responsibility (probably harking back to Watergate in terms of historical context).  So far as I understand them, religious men and women in power must obey one "higher authority," and shouldn't be shilling for the guy who happens to be in the Oval Office at any given moment.  

Interestingly, Death Race 2000 even sees fit to include two Nazi characters: Matilda and her navigator, "Herman the German."  They drive around in a vehicle decorated with swastikas.  But nobody in the movie's culture -- not the reporters nor the audience -- seems to mind this "affectation."   Again, look at the state of America today.  In the 2000s, everyone is accusing everyone else of being a Nazi. 

Bush was a Nazi, Obama is a Nazi. NPR is run by Nazis.  George Soros (a Jew...) is a Nazi, etc.  Rush Limbaugh speaks of Feminazis.  Al Gore is an environmental Nazi.  And on and on.  Who knew there were so many homegrown Nazis living and working in the United States?

What could be the end result of this Nazi-themed name-calling?  Well, if you throw around the term Nazi to describe every last person who disagrees with you, the term loses its power and horror, doesn't it?  It becomes a commonplace thing.

In the world of Death Race 2000, Matilda the Hun -- actually, truly a Nazi -- is just another "theme" driver, and no one is bothered by that.  In fact, she's got lots of fans.   She's just "an entertainer" and we're not supposed to judge her, right?  

But the most searing criticism embedded in Death Race 2000 is certainly lodged against those people who would be manipulated by their fears of foreigners, limited by their narrow outlook on the world, and easily distracted by televised bread-and-circuses. 

In other words: reality-TV American culture

It's much easier to root for a hero in a televised sporting event then -- you know -- solve a problem.  It's much easier to get caught up in minutiae of a hobby, such as -- for instance, the new rules of the race -- than in the details of national economic policy.  Sports fans are "enthusiasts," people who try to understand policy are called "wonks." 

The result, of course, is that the very men who "hold the power of life and death" operate in secrecy and with complete autonomy, according to their agendas, while the masses watch the race and are clueless about the government.  The rebellion against the Powers that Be can easily be dismissed as "the lunatic fringe" because the majority enjoys the bread and circuses. 

The movie also says something about the way our nation manufactures heroes for public consumption. Here, Frankenstein was raised in a government center and trained to be a racer.  He is only one in a succession of many Frankensteins, though that fact has been kept secret from the people. 

Again, looking back at the last decade, remember brave Jessica Lynch and how the government fabricated propaganda around her, transforming a good, courageous soldier into a veritable and invincible Rambolina?

In Death Race 2000, fans so admire and revere the "public" Frankenstein -- essentially a hit-and-run driver -- that they willingly throw themselves in front of his car so he can score points. 

Fortunately, no one has done something like that over Snooki, Paris Hilton or Bristol Palin yet.  But the cult of celebrity that surrounds these "reality stars" is the very cult that, in the film, draws people to Frankenstein. 

"You want to make love to me because I drive the Monster and wear this costume?" he asks an adoring fan. Yes.  She loves the trappings of his fame.

So Death Race 2000 really gets in its satirical licks -- licks that resonate even more fully today than they did in 1975 -- all while providing some glimmer of hope.  In the film, the rebellion is victorious and Mr. President's Orwellian Order is taken down...violently.  The death race is abolished.

The message to that defeated and murdered President is, perhaps, if you live by the sword (or the rules of the Death Race), you'll also die by the sword.  Once you numb the people so thoroughly to the death of others,on a routine, televised basis, what emotion would you expect your death to engender? 

How many points is striking down a global leader worth?  Or, in the language of the film, "Bye-bye Baby! Hello 70 points!"

"The drivers are ready, the world is watching. Once more, I give you what you want."

Readers sometimes ask me how I can support extremely violent films like The Last House on the Left(1972) Straw Dogs (1971) or Death Race 2000, and my answer is always the same: I support violent films if they use their on-screen violence to make a point.  To comment on our culture, or to present some kind of worthwhile moral statement.

Death Race 2000 is an exploitation film and it is incredibly violent.  Heads get crushed under tires.  Innocent pedestrians get struck and sliced with alarming regularity.  Yet, the film is a cautionary tale.  It declared  in 1975 that this is where America was headed; into a world of bread and circuses, into a world where celebrities are God, into a world where citizens have "tuned out" from politics and don't know what is being done in their names.

So the violence in the film certainly has a moral underpinning. 

What surprised me watching Death Race 2000 for the first time in years was not only how accurate many of the film's speculations turned out to be thirty-five years later; but also how genuinely erotic the film is.  There are quite a few scenes of explicit sexuality, and, in my opinion, they add a lot to the film and particularly the relationship of Frankenstein and Annie. 

That's something that has changed a lot since 1975 too. 

Today, our movies are all about the violence, but rarely about the sex.  Sex has been deemed unacceptable as a serious subject in the culture, and swept out of movies by and large. 

So that's another reason I love this film.  It's about pleasures we don't get to enjoy in the movies that much anymore.

Like watching real cars -- instead of the CGI equivalent -- race and jockey for superior position. 

So for me, Death Race 2000 -- with all its satiric and queasily accurate speculations -- will "forever howl down that freeway in the sky, knocking over... the angels."